Bestselling crime novelist Lisa Unger says she doesn't believe in writer's block: "I live for the blank page."
She's been filling plenty of them over the last decade. On Tuesday her 10th novel, Darkness, My Old Friend, will be published by Crown. Unger, who lives in Clearwater with her husband and daughter, will celebrate with a launch party at Barnes & Noble Clearwater that evening.
On the same day, Broadway (like Crown, an imprint of Random House) will publish new trade paperback and e-book editions of Angel Fire, her first novel, originally released in 2002 under her maiden name, Lisa Miscione. (The other three novels in that series about crime writer-investigator Lydia Strong will be republished as well.) "It's a nice feeling to have everything with the same publisher, on the same shelf," Unger says.
Ten novels in nine years is quite a resume, especially for someone who, although she majored in writing and literature at the New School and spent her 20s working in publishing in New York City, didn't get serious about writing her first book until she was 29.
Over coffee at Wildflower Cafe, Unger, 41, says, "I don't remember a time when I didn't define myself as a writer," starting during a globe-hopping childhood as a "literary omnivore."
"There was nothing else I wanted to do. But I didn't have the confidence to actually do it."
Then came a time when she realized "everything was wrong in my life." She enjoyed her job as a publicist for authors and was "maybe a little bit too good at it. . . . I was giving 110 percent to it, and not to what I always dreamed of doing." She had been dating a New York City police officer for seven years and was dissatisfied with the relationship. "I just felt like I could live with crash and burn. I couldn't live with a slow fade."
She had started a novel when she was 19 and worked on it "in the nooks and crannies of my life," but now she wanted to finish it. "I realized it had to do with writing every day: early, late, on my lunch hour, under a table during a meeting."
Then she went to Key West with a friend for a vacation and, at Sloppy Joe's, met Jeff Unger, who worked in IT for Bell & Howell in Detroit. "It was completely love at first sight," she says. Within six months, he had proposed. "We both sold our homes and quit our big corporate jobs and came here." He found a job in the Clearwater area, and she gave herself a year to sell Angel Fire.
She soon signed with agent Elaine Markson, who brokered a two-book contract with St. Martin's that became a four-book contract, all crime novels about Lydia Strong.
Between numbers three and four, though, Unger wrote an unrelated thriller called Beautiful Lies. "One day I got a flier in the mail with one of those missing child photos that had been age graduated, and I had this really weird thought: What if I looked at this and recognized myself?"
St. Martin's turned the book down, urging her to continue the series. "That is not a good day, when your publisher says, 'We do not want this book you have already written,' " Unger says. She wrote the fourth Strong book and then sold Beautiful Lies to Random House; in 2006 it became the first book she published as Lisa Unger.
Darkness, My Old Friend is the sixth, and it picks up the characters and setting of her last book, Fragile, particularly a former sheriff named Jones Cooper. "When he turned up in Fragile, I didn't expect him to have a big part to play. I had no idea. He surprised me."
Unger says that she never outlines or plans her plots. Her novels begin with characters, with a fragment like that observation of the missing child flier, or with an idea of a character's voice or appearance in a certain situation. "I write for the same reason I read: to find out what's going to happen."
After she wrote Fragile, she says, she couldn't stop thinking about Jones, whose life is upended by the events of that book. "I felt this really bizarre connection to him. He couldn't be more different from me. Maybe he's my cranky, muttering inner self."
Although her books roil with dark secrets and explosive violence, Unger in person is a sunny, gregarious presence. "Booksellers are always saying to me, 'You seem so nice!' like they're surprised," she says with a laugh.
"There's nothing particularly dark in my past. . . . I live in the light. My disposition is basically happy. I have" — she knocks on the table — "a good life." But, she says, she has always been fascinated by the dark side of things. "If I weren't a writer, I'd be a psychiatrist."
One of the writers who most influenced her is Truman Capote. "I loved his perfect prose, and that finger he had on the pulse of the sad, frail human heart. Then when I got older I read In Cold Blood. It was the first book that gave me permission to be what I am. . . . It showed me you could write about this ugliness, this darkness, examine it and do it with breathless beauty."
Unger says her books are not based on her own life. "Everything is autobiographical, and nothing is autobiographical. That's fiction." But in subtle ways the events of her life do shape the books. Themes of the relationships between parents and children have been a strong thread, especially since the birth of her daughter, Ocean, who's about to start kindergarten.
Fragile, for example, grew out of an event that occurred when Unger was 15: A teenage girl she knew in the small town where she lived was abducted and murdered. "It rocked my world," she says, but although it haunted her, she never drew upon it until decades later — and when she did, she focused on the adults who carried the guilt for a victim's death. "I had to be a wife and mother myself to write that story."
Having a child, she says, was the first thing that "ever rivaled my desire to write. I knew I'd love her, but I wasn't prepared for this giant laser beam of love that would knock me down and push out everything else."
She's found a balance, though, that seems to be working for her and for Ocean. "She says when she grows up she wants to be a 'mommy writer.' That makes me happy."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.